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On 27 October 2014 the BBC Today Programme broadcast the following exchange between presenter Justin Webb and John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, about the official end of British combat operations in Afghanistan:
Justin Webb: John, the Taliban weren’t beaten and the opium trade wasn’t dented either, and yet soldiers leaving are talking about achievements that have been made. What’s the proper reckoning?
John Simpson: It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. It’s true of course they haven’t beaten the Taliban but they haven’t been beaten by the Taliban. And that’s very important when you think how powerful guerrilla forces have tended to be against conventional forces. They’ve been kept pegged back. They are perhaps stronger now than they were a couple of years ago but they are also more inclined, the Taliban I’m talking about, more inclined to talk to the Government. I think that’s a kind of moot one. They certainly haven’t destroyed the opium poppy production, no. It’s higher this year than it’s ever been, I think. That was Britain’s special assignment. But they never had the forces to do that. They never had the kind of circumstances. And on the other hand, you know, there are enormously valuable changes here. There is more than a million kids in school, that’s something the Taliban have a great desire to stop, certainly for girls. The position of women is a great deal better. Even more important, I think, is the fact democracy has become a sort of accepted requirement in Afghanistan now. People expect to vote for their government and they expect it to do what they want it to do. And it’s a stable society. It may be a society where there is fighting going on in the background – three rockets hit the centre of Kabul last night – but nevertheless it is stable, it is working and it doesn’t look as though the Taliban are coming back. I think in the grander view of things you’d have to say it has been pretty successful even though it ought to have been more successful.
As Simpson is a highly respected, senior BBC correspondent, it is worth comparing his assertions to expert and first-hand testimony, and also to consider what his “reckoning” omitted to mention.
What John Simpson said
‘They haven’t beaten the Taliban but they haven’t been beaten by the Taliban… it doesn’t look as though the Taliban are coming back’.
In reality, as Helmandis told the New York Times, ‘the Taliban have never been stronger in the province.’ The UK military are fully aware of this, with The Times noting in January 2014 ‘hard-fought territory in southern Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban after British forces withdraw this year, British commanders and military experts believe.’ The report goes on to note there is evidence Afghan soldiers are already patrolling alongside insurgents and quotes a former Special Air Service commander: ‘I will be very surprised if the future Governor of Helmand… is not very closely connected to those who we call the Taliban.’
Looking at the national picture, in a 2012 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report titled ‘Waiting for the Taliban in Afghanistan’ Professor Gilles Dorronsoro noted ‘The Afghan regime will most probably collapse in a few years.’ According to the report, ‘poised to take power after the Afghan regime’s likely collapse, only the Taliban can potentially control the Afghan border and expel transnational jihadists from Afghanistan.’ Time Magazine echos Dorronsoro’s analysis: ‘Without American troops stationed in Afghanistan, a real danger exists that the Taliban, which ruled the country until the U.S. invasion, will return, along with other extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, Afghanistan watchers suggest.’
‘It’s a stable society’.
The Guardian recently explained ‘There are few senior British politicians, soldiers or diplomats prepared to make extravagant claims about Afghanistan’s stability’. So, by stating that Afghanistan is a ‘stable society’ Simpson goes further than the consensus position in the British government and military.
In contrast, Foreign Policy reports that the official US reconstruction watchdog warns Afghanistan ‘remains dangerously unstable’ with insurgent attacks at the highest level since 2011. During the nine months up to August 2014 there were 15,968 insurgent attacks – 61. In the past year 4,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed in fighting with the insurgency in the past year, according to the second-in-command for international forces in Afghanistan. The Associated Press reports that “suicide bombers, roadside bombs and rocket attacks on the Afghan capital have intensified” in the past month.
Regarding the British occupation, former military intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge provides some important context in his 2013 book Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War: ‘Britain’s efforts have resulted in the “stabilization” (i.e. the temporary pacification) of 3 of the 14 districts that make up the province of Helmand – just one of 34 provinces in a country with a population that is half that of the UK. In terms of overall political significance, this might be the equivalent of three large market towns in rural Lincolnshire. Before the British burst onto the scene, Helmand was “stable”, in the sense there was almost no Taliban presence and little prospect of any.’
‘It [Afghan society] is working’.
According to Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index Afghanistan is the joint most corrupt country in the world alongside North Korea and Somalia. Thomas Ruttig, Co-Director of Afghanistan Anaylsts Network, provides some detail: ‘Armed strongmen – warlords and commanders… sit in most key positions and dominate the parliament, the judiciary and the still-partly factionalised security forces as well as the country’s few functioning business sectors. Those who received financial means from the US in 2001 to fight the Taleban often invested in the drug trade and, starting from there, gradually took over licit sectors of the economy, such as the import-export business, construction, and the real estate, banking and mining sectors as well as the contract economy fed by the billions of military, aid and reconstruction money flowing in from abroad. Early on, they remobilised old or recruited new fighters with that money and pushed through their bulk integration – i.e., with the old militia structures – into the ‘new’ armed forces... Their new military and financial force empowered them to win seats in the parliamentary elections in 2005.’ This status quo could be called many things but only the most naïve, blinkered fool could say Afghan society ‘is working’ in the face of these easily accessible facts.
‘There is more than a million kids in school, that’s something the Taliban have a great desire to stop, certainly for girls.’
The reality is a little more complicated than Simpson suggests. According to Steele, after the Taliban attained power in the 1990s, they ‘softened their ban on girls' education and were turning a blind eye to the expansion of informal "home schools" in which thousands of girls were being taught in private flats.’ Today 43 percent of schools in Helmand remain closed, with provincial officials blaming insecurity in the region, according to Tolo News.
there are indications the Taliban has changed its stance on female education.
In 2011 the Afghan Education Minister claimed the Taliban's leadership was
prepared to drop its ban on girls' schools. In 2012 Anatol Lieven, a professor
in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, met with leading figures
close to the Taliban, who told him ‘there can be no return to pure
“government of mullahs” as before September 11 and that any Afghan government
would have to… allow modern education (albeit with women and men strictly
What John Simpson didn’t say
Nowhere in Simpson’s “reckoning” is there any mention of:
The effect of the UK’s occupation on Afghan civilians
According to General David Richards, the former Chief of Defence Staff, in the early stage of the British deployment to Helmand ‘we ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques. We absolutely knew it was not what we were there to do, and would not be helpful.’ Similarly, a British Army officer told Ledwidge that ‘We killed a lot of people… many of them might have been the wrong people.’
Citing credible sources Ledwidge calculates British forces killed 542 Afghan civilians, though he admits this is likely a huge underestimate. His hunch is backed up by testimony like that of journalist Ben Anderson, who was embedded with British soldiers in 2007: ‘I saw at least a dozen compounds [that is, houses] flattened and no one was checking for civilians before they dropped bombs.’
Furthermore, Ledwidge believes ‘we can be certain that many thousands of Helmandis… have been rendered disabled by NATO action.’ UK military operations displaced tens of thousands of Afghan civilians.
Insurgents killed and wounded by British forces
The number of Afghan insurgents killed by UK forces – likely thousands – is rarely mentioned at all by the media. ‘Ninety per cent of the people we are fighting couldn’t find Britain on a map’, Rory Stewart MP, who has walked across Afghanistan and lived in Kabul, explained in 2010. ‘They are semi-literate, tribal, conservative village communities… This is not a trivial issue.’ Adam Holloway MP, a former soldier and member of the Defence Select Committee, has a similar analysis of the composition of the Taliban insurgency. ‘What we call the Taliban are, in fact, hundreds of groups, most of whom are no more than traditional Afghan Muslims, the sons of local farmers… they are united not by Islam but by the presence of foreign troops on their soil, and a hatred of external governments… Approximately 80 per cent of those we call the enemy die within 20 miles of where they live: does that tell you something about who we are really fighting?’
UK armed forces killed and wounded during the UK occupation
453 British servicemen and women have died in Afghanistan. According to Ledwidge, by early 2013, 2,600 British soldiers had been wounded, and many thousands will suffer psychological problems connected to their time in Afghanistan in the years to come.
The effect of the UK occupation on the terror threat to the UK
Despite Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democrat government claims that British soldiers were fighting in Afghanistan to make British streets safer, the opposite seems more likely, especially if you take into consideration the UK’s broader policy in the region which includes support for US foreign policy. Lieven: ‘What we can surely say is that UK policy has been an absolute disaster in the perception of the Muslim population and has produced a significantly increased terror threat.’ Adam Holloway MP agrees: ‘Put starkly, our current situation is working against the West's security interest and is making attacks on the streets of Britain more, not less, likely.’
Unfortunately, these warnings were confirmed by the murder of off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013, which the attacker argued was in response to British actions in Afghanistan.
The financial cost of the UK occupation of Afghanistan.
Ledwidge has estimated the total cost of the UK war in Afghanistan to be £37 billion. This shouldn’t be seen as an abstract number but one with important negative ramifications for domestic UK spending. As President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1953: ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.’
The BBC’s tactical analysis of Afghanistan
By downplaying the negative consequences of the war in Afghanistan and omitting key information Simpson is whitewashing the UK invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. In this key respect, Simpson’s analysis fits in with the BBC’s broader coverage of Afghanistan and UK foreign policy.
As the state broadcaster, the BBC plays an important role in framing the popularly understood narrative of the UK war in Afghanistan. This ranges from stuffing the 2009 Question Time Afghanistan Special full of pro-war panellists to Webb and Simpson defining the discussion as one of tactical analysis – was the UK successful in achieving its self-defined objectives? – rather than about the morality or legality of invading and occupying another nation.
By working within this narrow framework of tactical analysis, Simpson predictably repeats a common argument made by the armed forces and the mainstream media – that the British army never had a sufficient number of troops to achieve its mission. This framing fails to engage with the most basic truism about occupying another nation. ‘Our policy makers do not understand that the very presence of our forces in the Pashtun areas [in Afghanistan] is the problem’, explained three former CIA experts of the region in 2009. ‘The more troops we put in, the greater the opposition. We do not mitigate the opposition by increasing troop levels, but rather we increase the opposition and prove to the Pashtuns that the Taliban are correct.’ Rory Stewart concurs. ‘The basic problem is very, very simple. Why don’t these interventions work? Because we are foreigners’, the Conservative MP notes. ‘If things are going wrong in a country, it’s not usually that we don’t have enough foreigners. It’s usually that we have too many.’
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